Tackling the North-South divide: How a northern sport is migrating to schools in the South

It was once a sport strictly confined to the toughest mining towns, but rugby league is now firing the imaginations of school pupils south of Watford, reports Steve McCormack
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The Independent Online

Imagine a village cricket tournament in France – or perhaps a string of ice hockey clubs in the Egyptian desert. Well, a sporting trend almost as incongruous is taking root in schools across the South-east of England, and there's striking evidence of it on the playing field of Brentwood County High School in Essex, where, for an hour after school every Wednesday, close to 100 teenagers play rugby league, a sport traditionally confined to former mining and mill towns across Yorkshire and Lancashire.

And this school is just one of hundreds outside the industrial North to have taken up the sport in the past few years, all participating in an immensely successful and growing national schools competition which culminates every year in a showcase event on the Wembley Stadium pitch, before the final of the professional clubs' knock-out event, the Carnegie Challenge Cup Final.

On the day of my visit to Brentwood, the pupils are divided into four age groups, each with at least one teacher as coach. The session is divided into general fitness routines, practising the skills of the game, such as tackling and passing, and playing a short match. There's also some practice at kicking through the H-shaped posts. The enthusiasm is palpable, and no one appears put off by the rain and mud. It's a contact sport, and everywhere I look bodies are colliding, and outstretched arms are reaching to score tries. The atmosphere is eager exertion mixed with simple enjoyment of vigorous physical activity. Occasionally a teacher stops the action to draw attention to a tactical or coaching point. "Well tackled. Now get in a defensive line," says one. "Move the ball quickly through the hands," comes another.

It's not just boys who've come out in the wet. One pitch belongs to the girls' squad, playing the game with no less gusto, and apparently unbothered by wet hair, grimy fingernails and muddy knees.

The popularity of the sport at this school is all the more striking as we are in Essex, a county where football has long dominated the scene. Not far from here, David Beckham, Bobby Moore and Frank Lampard first laced up their boots.

"It's overtaken football at this school," says head of boys PE Adrian Ackred, taking a breather from coaching the 11 to 13-year-olds' squad. "We wouldn't have this number of kids come out to Monday-night football practice."

The real catalyst here, Ackred freely admits, is his fellow PE teacher Daniel Iacono, who is putting an older boys group through their paces on an adjoining pitch. Iacono, an Australian with a strong rugby league pedigree, first came to the school in 2005 in his then job as a development officer for Rugby Football League (RFL), the sport's Leeds-based governing body. He was part of a campaign by RFL to expand interest in the sport in schools across the country by offering free coaching to pupils, and, more importantly, by teaching PE staff how to coach what for most was a foreign game.

At Brentwood, Iacono's influence was immediate. A Year 7 (11 and 12-year-olds) boys' team was formed within weeks, and every year since then participation has grown, with the school now fielding boys and girls teams in the national competition. In last year's event, both the Year 7 and Year 8 boys' teams reached the national quarter finals. Iacono, now one of the school's full-time PE teachers, was last year named Carnegie Rugby League Teacher of the Year for London and the South.

He has a theory why pupils here have shown such an appetite to learn from him about rugby league. "Most kids don't want to listen to a teacher about how football should be played, because they have other influences like the weekend coach, their dad or brother and it's always on TV as well," he says. "But rugby league is something they haven't seen before, so they have to listen."

The prominent position of the sport, giving frequent opportunities for pupils to represent the school in outside competitions, has contributed to a sharp improvement in all round behaviour, he says. This is a point endorsed by his boss, Ackred. "I would say it's had a massive impact on behaviour around the school," he says. "The unity they have with each other and the pride and self esteem created by representing the school produces a nicer breed of student."

As the practice session is finishing, some of the pupils tell me why they like the sport so much. "If you've had a bad day you can get rid of the aggression on the pitch," says Dennie Jones, 14, who admits to having had a patchy behaviour record before rugby league came along. "It's interesting and different and you do it with different people," chips in Arthur Austin, 14.

Gabby Larkin, 12, says she enjoys getting dirty and "just going for it". And Hannah Walkner, 14, offers: "In school it's like proper boring, but this is different; you can hurt people without feeling guilty about it."

At RFL headquarters in Leeds, there is justifiable pride at what has been achieved since the Carnegie Champion Schools competition was launched in 2002. Open to all secondary schools in the country, it is growing every year, and can now call itself the world's largest rugby league knock-out tournament.

Last year almost 500 schools took part, including nearly 1,500 boys' teams and more than 200 girls teams. All winning schools came from Yorkshire or Lancashire, but schools from other regions are progressing further in the competition year on year.

"The aim now is to spread the game further into the Midlands, South and South-west," says RFL national development manager Andy Harland, "and get schools to enter more girls teams."

"The hope is that some of these schools will soon overtake schools from the heartlands," says Andy Gilvary, RFL regional development officer for London and the South-east. "And we hope the professional clubs will start coming down South to look for players at the schools."

Rugby codes: Union versus league

How many sorts of rugby are there?

Two: rugby union, with 15 players a team, is played all over the country and has its roots in public schools. Rugby league is a 13-a-side game, historically based in the northern conurbations between the Mersey and the Humber.

How did they evolve?

Rugby union arrived first, in the mid-19th century, and was an amateur game. But when clubs in the industrial north wanted to pay players to compensate them for missing work, a row broke out, leading the northern teams to break away and form their own league. The split has continued to this day, even though both sports are now fully professional.

Are the rules the same?

Almost but not quite. The main difference is that, in rugby league, when someone is tackled, the rest of the players aren't allowed to pile on top. The downed player just stands up, heels the ball backwards to a team-mate and the game re-starts. This element makes rugby league a faster game.